What is the purpose of preaching within the worship and ministry of the Christian church? Is it to teach those gathered in worship more information about Jesus? Is it to teach about the impact of a particular ministry, such as a community project the local church is involved with, or maybe of a missionary they support in service in some far-off part of the world? Is the purpose of preaching to inspire the listeners in some way? Is it to give them encouragement to become actively involved in bringing peace and justice into the world?
All of the options I’ve mentioned may be valid, but they all are secondary to a greater purpose. I believe that the primary purpose of preaching is to proclaim Christ, and to do so in such a way as to emphasize the redemptive work that God has done in him, and him alone, which was God’s plan before the creation of the world. And this same perspective is the one taught by Dennis Johnson in Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from all the Scriptures.
Johnson is firmly anchored in what is known as the Redemptive-Historical understanding of the Bible. He reads and preaches the Bible from a perspective that expects the Bible to reveal Christ and his uniquely redemptive work, either directly or indirectly, from the opening words of Genesis through the closing words of Revelation. He believes that it is possible to preach “in such a way that our hearers are led to Jesus as the climax toward whom every Scripture drives, and to do so with integrity, accountability and credibility,” (272)
Johnson recognizes that the redemptive work of Christ is not the unifying element of preaching for some preachers and/or their faith traditions, and that there are preachers for whom this emphasis is not “on their radar,” so to speak. He looks back to the preaching of Peter and Paul, in the book of Acts, to show us that Christ’s finished work was the primary focus of their preaching and that this focus remains relevant and appropriate for the church today. He calls the preaching of Peter and Paul “apostolic, Christocentric preaching” and he devotes the first portion of the book to making a case for this type of preaching in the church today. In doing so he reviews the work of the apostles and then explores the ways in which the church has historically interacted with their model, including both its rejection and later recovery.
After making what I believe to be a compelling case for apostolic, Christocentric preaching Johnson shifts to giving practical instruction in how it can be done, which is the part of the book that I found to be overflowing with wisdom for the modern preacher. The idea suggested in the subtitle of the book “Preaching Christ from all the Scriptures,” that all of scripture is filled with Christ, and filled in such a way that it can be preached to a modern congregation, may seem to be an impossible one. Preaching Christ from Chronicles? Preaching Christ from Psalm 102 or 113? Preaching Christ from Revelation 12? The Bible is filled with page after page after page of many types of literature, written by many human authors, over a span of thousands of years. Can Christ, and particularly his redemptive work, be found and made known in all of it? To these questions Johnson offers a resounding “Yes!” as he points out the landmarks that would guide a preacher desiring to follow the redemptive-historical path.
The last two chapters of the book are titled “Preaching the Promises” and “Preaching the Promise Keeper.” In these chapters Johnson deals in turn with the various literary genres of the Old and New Testaments. Working with an example of each genre, i.e. historical narrative, law, wisdom, poetry and prophecy for the Old, and gospel narrative, parable, epistolary doctrine, epistolary exhortation, wisdom and prophetic vision for the New, he demonstrates the ways in which each sample text bring forth the redemptive work of Christ. And for his examples Johnson hasn’t picked texts in which Christ is patently obvious, but he uses examples such as 2 Samuel 16:1-14, Proverbs 15:27 and Luke 16:1-13.
In the example from each genre Johnson explains in very real ways the markers that point towards Christ and God’s eternal plan to redeem his people. To give further help to the preacher in understanding and applying the apostolic, Christocentric method he provides an outline of what a sermon shaped on the sample texts could look like. Johnson’s method and purpose are not merely theoretical, but he is also attentive to the fact that all preaching should speak with relevance to the lives of those listening in our congregations each time we gather for worship.
I could go on and on about how good this book is and the very gentle and practical wisdom it offers to the preacher who would seek to make the finished work of Christ the unifying point of their preaching. Instead I will conclude with two final thoughts, as I commend all who “preach,” be it vocationally or in their living as a disciple in the world, to consider their own work on behalf of God. The first is related to the title of the book, Him We Proclaim, which comes from Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
The singular work that God did through Christ is the only bridge in which a sinful man or woman can cross over to be united with a holy God. This is the message that must continually be brought to the world. The Gospel has many things to give shape to our lives in the love of God, but none of it matters absent the redemptive work of Christ.
And the second reason we need to frequently and joyfully preach the redemption known in Christ is that while living in a fallen and broken world we are bombarded with things that push us away from him. All believers in Jesus have known times when their mouths professed faith but their hearts were going in the opposite direction. And those living without a saving faith in Jesus are not even aware of the barriers in their lives blocking their understanding of God’s word. In either case these words of Johnson are true:
“[The] defenses of the human heart are harder fortifications to breach than the massive walls of unscaleable stone that encircled ancient
. Yet, the apostolic preacher has in his arsenal the very weapons that can pierce stone-hard hearts and invade spiritual death with new life: the gospel of Christ, carried forward by the invincible Spirit of Christ.” (90) Jericho
As you read this book and apply its principles may you know God’s power and peace as he reveals Christ to you in all of scripture, so that you may carry his redemptive work more fully in the world.